Aligning Traditional Collective Bargaining with Nontraditional Labor Relations. (Labor-Management Relations)

By Kirkner, Rob; Sharfstein, Steve | The Public Manager, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

Aligning Traditional Collective Bargaining with Nontraditional Labor Relations. (Labor-Management Relations)


Kirkner, Rob, Sharfstein, Steve, The Public Manager


When, where, and why to choose consensual methods of dispute resolution and traditional collective bargaining approaches-provided you have the choice.

Collaboration and consensual methods of employment dispute resolution have emerged in federal sector labor relations as an alternative to traditional, rights-based collective bargaining. In many circumstances, such alternative methods of negotiation result in both more acceptable agreements and a more satisfying process for reaching agreement. However, in other circumstances, the more traditional statute-based method of negotiations remains the more relevant approach. A workshop at the recent labor relations directors' retreat focused on "What works? When? and Why?" The group's goal was to examine and discuss the variables which should be taken into account in guiding parties to identify when alternative approaches are most likely to be successful and when traditional approaches have the better likelihood to result in a mutually satisfactory outcome.

Predecisional Involvement (PDI)

The need for reflection on the partnership/traditional bargaining dichotomy is the direct result of President Clinton's 1993 Executive Order (EQ 12871) on Labor-Management Partnership. While in no way superseding the basic federal service labor-management relations statute, which has regulated federal collective bargaining since 1979, the executive order directed parties to establish partnership councils, conduct training on interest-based bargaining and alternative dispute resolution (ADR), and engage unions in predecisional involvement (PDI). In many respects, implementation of the executive order required a seminal change in the historic role of union and management.

In January 2001, President Bush issued a new executive order (EO 13203) which repealed the prior order and eliminated the mandatory partnership provisions that had been in effect. However, the new order in no way eliminated the parties' voluntary option to exercise the type of labor-management process, including collaboration, that is most effective for them. In fact, the repeal of the prior order makes it even more important for the parties to analyze strategically the collective bargaining relationship and be able to recognize circumstances which determine whether a traditional or collaborative labor-management interaction is more likely to be effective. Experience since 1993 has demonstrated that factors such as organizational culture, the parties' relationship, the personality of union and management leaders, and the specific issue being addressed dictate which form of labor-management interface may be most appropriate.

Traditional Collective Bargaining

Knowledgeable practitioners have recognized that nontraditional strategies will never invalidate the need for traditional collective bargaining in some situations and in some bargaining relationships. Not only does the federal service labor-management relations statute remain in full force and effect, but parties understand that the foray into pre-decisional, collaborative arrangements never waives the right of either side to revert to the statutory process for traditional negotiations. Traditional collective bargaining is the bedrock of union-management relations. The late John Sturdivant often observed that partnership was a high-wire act that had both significant rewards and risks.

It was the presence of a safety net in labor parlance, the collective bargaining agreement, and the rights granted by the statute, that enabled the parties to practice their high-wire routine to the point where the rewards were maximized and the risks minimized. Even in very mature bargaining relationships with established partnerships, experienced labor practitioners understand that traditional collective bargaining will continue to operate side-by-side with nontraditional approaches. Those who embrace collaboration as a panacea for all situations may be creating unrealistic expectations.

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